Later this year, in June, the UK will vote in a referendum to decide if we should opt-in or opt-out of the European Union. Many are voicing their opinions on whether we should leave or remain part of the EU, but what effect will this momentous decision have on animal welfare?
It is sometimes thought that if we were to leave the EU, the UK – detached from the constraints of EU free trade rules – would be able to raise its animal welfare standards, while protecting UK farmers by banning lower welfare imports.
However, if we were to exit the EU, our trade with the Member States would be governed by the World Trade Organization rules which, though allowing more latitude than the EU’s rules, would still hamper the UK’s ability to restrict imports that do not meet UK animal welfare standards.
Live exports would also be governed by these rules which, like the EU regulations, prohibit trade restrictions on ‘goods’. If the UK were to attempt to ban live exports, the World Trade Organization could challenge this, and our defence would have to rest on public morality. Alternatively, the UK may negotiate trade agreements with one or more EU Member States, in which case the UK’s ability to ban live exports would be governed by these agreements. Unfortunately, the UK government may choose not to ban live exports within these new agreements.
Little appetite for improving animal welfare
If the UK was to opt-out and no longer be party to EU law, there may be more scope to introduce new animal welfare rules. However, there currently appears to be little appetite in the UK government or in the farming sector for improving animal welfare.
Historically, the UK took a lead on animal welfare within the EU – adopting a total sow stall ban, and prohibiting the use of veal crates before most other Member States. In recent years, however, other countries, such as Germany, have started to overtake the UK and the rest of the EU in terms of their willingness to strengthen their national welfare policies.
The EU has ensured some improvements for animal welfare are applied across 28 countries, including the UK. Many advances for farm animals, such as the ban on the barren battery cage and the Lisbon treaty recognising animal as sentient beings, come from European legislation.
Unfortunately, enforcement can be a problem. It is shocking to think that 13 years after the EU law requiring provision of enrichment and a ban of routine tail docking came into force, a proportion of pig farmers in many EU countries (including the UK) are still not complying.
It is possible that, as a nation, the UK would have less influence on legislation and policy in the rest of Europe were we to leave the EU. However, with our significant reach outside the UK, we would continue to act at national, EU and global levels.
Ultimately, it is clear that both national and international governments need to adopt bold policies to continue raising the base level of animal welfare standards. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum in June, we will continue to campaign and lobby governments at all levels to improve the lives of farmed animals all over the world.
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